The UK’s home secretary recently sent an open letter to the Chair of the ACMD outlining the Council’s priorities for the year. Bizarrely, one of these priorities is to review the use of, harms arising from, and legislation of khat.  Why?

Khat is a leaf that is commonly chewed by people in or from East Africa and the Arab Peninsula. When chewed (continously, for absolutely ages) it produces a mild stimulant effect.  A taxi driver in West London let me try some once.  It’s pretty minging an acquired taste- it’s very bitter and left my mouth feeling dry and icky. I didn’t chew anywhere near enough to feel any kind of effect from it.

In the UK, khat is legal, imported from Yemen, Kenya and Ethiopia on daily flights, sold in open markets as a vegetable. It costs approximately $5 for a bundle. The two active stimulants in khat- cathine and cathinone are (I think) the main stimulants in the recently banned synthetic high, m-cat . Khat is a low-profit business, and there are no links between organized crime networks and the trade in khat, although the UK is a conduit for Khat coming from Africa and going on to the US and other countries where it is illegal.  In the US it sells for $400 per kg.

Currently, khat is used recreationally by a significant percentage of men of Somali, Yemeni and Ethiopian origins, but is not used widely outside of these populations. Men tend to chew khat in groups in mafreshes – cafes.  It is generally socially unacceptable for women to chew khat, and when they do, they tend to do it alone. There is some physical and psychological harm that can arise from abuse-  anxiety, sleep deprivation etc, and some risk of dependency.  In 2005, the ACMD likened the risk to that of caffeine.

I’m reading between the lines and paraphrasing here, but basically, when asked to review the classification of khat, the ACMD concluded that the biggest risks of societal harm facing khat users came not from their khat use, but from the poverty, poor access to jobs, and squalid housing conditions typical for these immigrant communities. Criminalizing khat would only push people towards criminal networks that they currently had no contact with. There are some (more often women than men) within these communities who’d like to see khat banned, but it’s not, as far as I’m aware, a majority.

Why is the ACMD reviewing it again?  Has anything changed? At the moment it seems to me to be a perfectly sound model of legal access to a relatively harmless substance.There could perhaps be more investment in harm reduction education and support, or maybe a look at restricting sales to young people, but what’s to be gained from banning it?

via Transform